Sheesh. Grades. You’ve probably been getting them your whole life. Nothing is more fundamental to mainstream education. Grades are so interwoven with our education that we cannot imagine classes without them. But some people have imagined just that, and have created non-grading programs, and have studied what happens when you remove grades from the equation. You know the answer to what happens, right? It’s obvious. People do better. They engage more with the process. They find more meaning in their learning. Hardly anyone loafs and does the minimum. There is universe of learning, out there, where grades are just not part of the landscape. Many outstanding educational institutions, in many parts of the world, either have no grades, offer optional grades, or practice some blend of grading and non-grading.

In mainstream education in Canada we have grades — mostly because we like to follow traditions, and somebody decided more than 200 years ago that it would be a good idea to rank students on a four-point scale from Optimal to Worst. (That is a slight simplification.) Pretty much everyone who has studied grading systems has found them to be problematic in a variety of ways. But here we are. That four-point scale still exists (GPA), as does all the machinery of reinforcing and perpetuating a system that ranks performance.

Grades are so ubiquitous and integral to our modern, western style of education that we assume they are absolutely necessary. They are not. But we still use them; they embody the tension between what we carry forward from the traditions of our past and what we can envision for a more humane future.

The tiered grading system inculcates in students an attitude that values high grades but does not regard learning as an intellectual or ethical activity.

How can we avoid the downsides of grading within a system that assigns grades? Could we take advantage of some of the benefits on non-grading systems? Well, it turns out there is quite a bit we can do. Here are several pragmatic strategies that we can adapt from non-grading learning environments and apply to our class:

  1. Shift the focus from instructor assessment to learner self-assessment (and make learner self-assessment part of the grade).
  2. Design assignments that encourage self-direction, metacognition, and interdisciplinarity (and make these self-directed projects part of the grade).
  3. Assign a self-awareness and self-assessment project (as the final project, weighted as a significant proportion of the final grade.)
  4. Avoid exams, quizzes, standardized tests, mid-terms, and similar methods that do not provide effective measurements of learning.
  5. Emphasize that what an instructor teaches has no necessary relationship to what a student learns. Therefore, emphasize authentic learning – which can only be led by the learner.

We have all of these features in our class. The type of environment that can be cultivated, using the above features, will greatly resemble the forms of education that humans practiced for thousands of years (hundreds of thousands of years, actually) before modern and colonial practices attempted to erase it all.

Asking about Grades

If you want to discuss your grade — on a given project or in the course overall — please feel free to get in touch. However, before asking about a grade, I encourage you to consider asking for feedback first. The feedback page describes my rationale and approach for a feedback process which is reciprocal, focused on (your) learning as well as (my) assessment, and which is much more likely to yield meaningful outcomes than if I simply give you a number.

On the other hand, I am willing to simply give you a number at any point — if that is all you want. There is nothing inappropriate about focusing on grades. After all, grades are foundational to the educational system in which this course is taking place. But grades don’t necessarily reflect authentic learning, and my goal is to help you learn rather than simply earn a grade. So, I will consistently push you in the direction of reciprocal feedback, self-assessment, and personal exploration — while at the same time providing you with a grade if you want it and when you need it.